OK, folks, let’s take a moment to talk about dress codes, shall we? They’re not the most exciting part of getting dressed for an event—Nothing sucks the fun out of getting ready to attend a wedding quicker than some obscure dress code printed on the invitation!—but understanding them is definitely a must. No matter how many gatherings we attend, it seems like we’re always second guessing what the terms semi-formal, business casual and cocktail attire really mean—and what, exactly, to wear to each type of event.
And while we usually subscribe to the rule that it’s always better to be overdressed than to be underdressed, it’s also super uncomfortable showing up somewhere in a gown when everyone else is wearing jeans and a tee. So, we did a little hard research on how to dress for each dress code. Frankly, whomever came up with the term dressy casual should totally be canceled. (Hello, aren’t those two opposing terms?) Alas, there are actually specific expectations behind some of the most confusing dress code suggestions—including formal dress codes and casual dress codes.
Because it’s already hard enough to shop for the perfect ensemble as it is when you do understand the attire suggestions, we went ahead and decoded some of the most common dress codes for you. (You’re welcome!) Whether your new job suggests that employees dress in business casual attire or you receive a wedding invitation that says “black tie optional” along the bottom, we’ve got you covered. We’ve even added in a few shopping picks, so if you’re already looking for the perfect ensemble, you’re set in that arena, too.
Picking out an outfit should be fun, not stressful—so go ahead and keep reading to learn how to dress for every dress code.
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Dress Code: Black Tie
This is crystal clear for those who prefer suiting over dresses, skirts and jumpsuits—wear a tuxedo. It’s a little more complicated when it comes to dresses, though. You can technically wear anything from a long dress to dressy separates to a formal cocktail dress. The best way to figure out what to wear is to dress according to what you expect the host to wear. Attending a high-end wedding? Then wear a gown. If, on the other hand, you’re going to a work function that calls for black tie, it’s more appropriate to wear a little black dress with a statement jewelry.
Foolproof Outfit: a sleek gown or a classic black tuxedo
You can’t go wrong with a stunning black gown—and we particularly love an off-shoulder or one-shoulder number for a bit of flare. If you don’t want to wear a dress, a formal jumpsuit, tuxedo or dressed-up suiting will certainly do.
Dress Code: Black Tie Optional
This is one of the murkier dress codes. Stereotypically, it meant that men were given the option of either wearing a tuxedo or a dark suit and a tie. Of course, anyone of any gender identity can opt for a suiting or tuxedo look. Those who prefer dresses can wear anything from a long dress to a cocktail number—so long as the style is relatively conservative. This often means that longer hemlines are preferred, and long slits are not. Think of it like this: You aren’t expected to look as if you’re en route the Oscars, but you should still make an effort with formal attire.
Foolproof Outfit: an ankle-grazing dress and statement jewelry, formal jumpsuit or a dark suit
For events that are black tie optional, wearing a more formal jumpsuit is a great option as a mix between suiting and a dress. If you go the dress route, though, make sure it’ll hold up in a room full of formal tuxedos and gowns.
Dress Code: Creative Black Tie
Creative black tie is the dress code that allows you to have fun. Those who’d typically opt for a tuxedo, for instance, should feel free to wear a black shirt or a red bow tie—something other than the cookie-cutter penguin suit. Those who want to wear something other than a tux are similarly encouraged to take their look less seriously. Still confused? Think of creative black tie as trendy black tie. Oftentimes, creative black tie is the expectation at theme parties with a dress code like “1920s Black Tie” or “Texas Black Tie”, and in those cases, choose a dressy look that works with the theme. For instance, with a dress code that calls for Texas Black Tie, one would be dressed appropriately in a tuxedo, bolo tie, and cowboy boots, or a gown and a cowboy hat.
Foolproof Outfit: a formal-but-trendy gown for or a unique suiting look.
If you choose to go with a unique suiting look, you might end up needing to splurge a little. Keep your eyes peeled for sales on sleek blazers and suiting separates, and snag your size when you see it to ensure you have a go-to look when the time arrives to wear it.
Dress Code: Cocktail
For guys, this dress code calls for a dark suit with a tie. For women, cocktail attire typically means short dresses that are party-ready. When in doubt, wear a little black dress and dress it up with fun jewelry—or, if you’d rather wear color, opt for something bright and fun.
Foolproof Outfit: an little black dress or casual suiting
If you have a go-to blazer or chic matching set, a party with cocktail attire requirements is the perfect place to wear them. You can always go with your favorite LBD, too, if you want a classic look.
Dress Code: Festive
A dress code that tends to pop up on invitations around the holidays, festive attire is similar to cocktail attire, but with a holiday bent—say a sparkly sequin dress, a red satin skirt or a suit that feature some festive colors.
Foolproof Outfit: a sequin party dress or a suit with holiday vibes
Don’t shy away from sequins, folks! If you’re a little unsure about going for a bold color, opt for a sequin jumpsuit or dress in a more neutral tone.
Dress Code: Business Formal
The dress code suggestion at many daytime semi-formal events (particularly work lunches and conferences) is business formal—which calls for a tailored dress, pantsuit or a different formal-ish suiting option. The idea is to wear something business appropriate that also feels dressed-up.
Foolproof Outfit: a chic pantsuit or formal blazer and pants combo
You want this business look to be a bit dressed up, so opt for a formal suit in a fun party-ready color—like a pink, light blue or even floral pattern. Just because you need to look professional doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun!
Dress Code: Business Casual
Most corporate offices have a dress code that calls for business casual. Pants and a blazer or a pencil skirt and a fun blouse is the way to go. Try to avoid wearing jeans—though on some occasions dark jeans might work—and definitely no sneakers.
Foolproof Outfit: dark trousers and a blazer or skirt and a fun blouse
There have been quite a few blazer options in this guide so far, but you really can’t go wrong with a long white blazer—especially for more business casual outfits. Paired with just about any type of pants, it works great.
Dress Code: Casual Dressy
This dress code calls for a just slightly dressier version of your most casual look. Dress up your go-to pair of pants with a fun pair of ankle boots, add heels to elevate flared jeans or pair a jumpsuit with a collared shirt. Alternatively, dress up your favorite pair of jeans with a blazer and you’ll be good to go.
Foolproof Outfit: black pants, a blouse and ankle boots or jeans and a blazer
The casual dressy dress code makes it so easy to work in pieces already in your closet. Opt for a fun pair of animal print trousers or your favorite midi skirt, then add finishing touches that make it a bit more formal.
Dress Code: Casual
Anything goes in this case, including jeans and sneakers, and a casual dress code usually means you’ll be uncomfortable in anything too dressy.
Foolproof Outfit: jeans, a cute top and sneakers, of course!
Think of the casual dress code as what you’d wear to spend all day shopping or hanging out with your friends—nothing too serious. We love having a cute cardigan top as an option for any season that you can pair with your favorite jeans.
A version of this article was originally published in 2014.